The Visit, from Chester County's resident trickster M. Night Shyamalan, is Hansel and Gretel with a shaky cam. It's a "found-footage" scare pic, a slow-build affair with a few gags, in which a teenage brother and sister hop the train from Philadelphia to spend a week in the country with the grandparents they've never met.
How can that be?
Mom (Kathryn Hahn), seen mostly communicating via Skype in Shyamalan's low-budget thriller, left home when she was 19. Estrangement followed. The circumstances were dramatic, even traumatic, but she's not giving out details.
Ask Nana and Pop Pop, she suggests. It has been 15 years since she walked out. Maybe they'll talk about it.
So off go Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) to a train station that says it's Masonville, Pa. (looks suspiciously like a stop on the Chestnut Hill West line), and to a secluded farm where Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) reside. Becca, a budding filmmaker, has brought her camcorder along - two, actually - to document the family get-together. Tyler, younger than his sis, has brought his phobias and his rapping persona, T-Diamond. He's a textbook obsessive-compulsive, ready to sterilize whatever surfaces he's about to touch. He also fancies himself a rapper, improvising snappy couplets for the train conductor's benefit. Tyler is obnoxious, but what 13-year-old boy isn't?
The week begins with baked cookies, big breakfasts, and smiles all around, but after Pop Pop announces that he and Nana go to bed at 9:30 p.m. ("We're old people"), he recommends that Becca and Tyler do likewise.
At the very least, they should stay in their room.
Let the creepy, screeching noises and projectile vomiting begin.
As the week moves along, it becomes increasingly clear that all is not right with Nana and Pop Pop. There's weird stuff going on in the shed, the kids have been warned away from the basement (a mold problem), and several visitors from the town mental facility - where Becca and Tyler's grandparents do volunteer work - come calling.
When Nana asks Becca to help clean the oven, it seems like an innocent request - until the sweet-looking senior citizen urges Becca to climb all the way in. (Dunagan looks like Lillian Gish, circa The Night of the Hunter - another picture featuring children in jeopardy.)
In the wake of two big-budget, effects-driven flops (The Last Airbender, Another Earth) and two homegrown humiliations (Lady in the Water and The Happening, featuring some of the worst line-readings in the history of cinema), The Visit marks something of a return to form for Shyamalan. The filmmaker is looser here, goofier. He has found a funny gimmick with Tyler's substituting the names of female pop singers for curse words ("Katy Perry," epithetically). And there's something amusingly pretentious about two camcorder-toting teens dropping cinema terms like mise en scene and denouement into their conversation.
But The Visit isn't The Sixth Sense. It's not even Signs. (Although once again, kids play prominent roles, and families - even dysfunctional, distressed families - matter.)
And isn't the whole handheld "real-video" thing kind of old by now? Isn't the Shyamalanian-twist thing kind of old by now, too?
That's not to say there is a twist as The Visit claws and scratches its way to its violent climax.
That's not to say there isn't one, either.
The Visit **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. With Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, and Kathryn Hahn. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour,
PG-13 (violence, scares, profanity, adult themes).